Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Remember to Give Thanks


It seems hard to believe we are nearing the end of the November and another holiday season. For many people Thanksgiving kicks off a hectic season of shopping, parties, and holiday activities. Don’t get me wrong. I love the celebration of Christmas, but sometimes we seem we rush past the season of giving thanks. We have so much for which to be thankful. Our nation is the wealthiest in the world, and while our wealth is certainly not shared equally among our citizens, we take for granted may things which would be luxuries in many countries.

In the seventeenth chapter of Luke Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when he is confronted by ten lepers seeking healing. He instructs them to “go and show themselves to the priests,” and as they went they were cleansed. Incredibly only one, a Samaritan, returned to offer praise and thanks for his healing. Jesus responded by asking a penetrating question—where are the other nine? Where are those who ought to be giving thanks for God’s blessing? I am confident sometimes our Heavenly Father looks at his people and once again asks—where are the nine? Gratitude is at the heart of our worship. It is the foundation of Christian discipleship and Christian stewardship. It is the acknowledgement that all we are, all we possess, and all we hope to be are gifts from God.

I have been incredibly blessed. God has provided for my needs often before I was aware of them. He has been generous to me and given me opportunities I never imagined I would have. He gave me the wonderful heritage of Christian parents and grandparents. He provided opportunities for education and places to learn and grow. He led me to the one who became my wife and gave us the gift of raising our sons and now enjoying our grandchildren. He has allowed me to serve with wonderful and gracious people, and he invited me (as he does all of us) to join him in his work in our world.

I often suggest to people they should follow the tradition of the children of Israel in the Old Testament. They often gathered for worship and “recounted the mighty acts of God on their behalf.” We should also recount the mighty acts of God on our behalf. I encourage you during this season of giving thanks to take some time to make a list of the many things God has done for you. Maybe you have forgotten about some of them from long ago. Think about the stages and years of your life. Ask God to help you recall all that he has done for you. When you complete your list, you will be ready to “recount” the mighty acts of God on your behalf. Don’t forget to pause during this season to do as they Samaritan leper and say “thank you” to a gracious and generous God.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Religious Liberty for Everyone

This week I attended the annual meeting of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  I have the wonderful privilege of representing our convention on the board of the BJC.  We are one of 15 national, state and regional bodies which are members of the BJC.  The BJC's mission is to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.

Everyone knows the political season is in full swing.  The heat and passion of the political campaign season sometimes causes people to step over the lines that provide our religious liberty.  In fact, sometimes the actions taken by people of faith under the banner of religious freedom actually compromise this cherished freedom and do little to advance the understanding or support for genuine religious liberty.

Our first amendment freedoms are precious to us: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  None of us want to live in a country where we do not have these cherished freedoms, but these freedoms are for all of us, not just those who believe like we do.

The Baptist Joint Committee is primarily an educational and advocacy organization.  It is a leading voice in Washington, D.C., fighting to uphold the historic Baptist principle of religious freedom. It stands guard at the intersection of church and state, defending the first freedom of the First Amendment.  The BJC is the only religious agency devoted solely to religious liberty and the institutional separation of church and state.  While the BJC is primarily supported by Baptists, we fight for religious liberty for people of all faiths and denominations.  Many of these groups count on the BJC for leadership.

One of the newer brochures available from the BJC web site (www.bjconline.org) is entitled Religious Liberty is a Gift from God.  The brochure states, “Religious liberty is a gift from God, not the result of any act of toleration or concession on the part of the state. It has to do with what we Baptists call “soul freedom” — the liberty of conscience that we all receive simply by virtue of how God created us and chose to relate to us.”

The brochure goes on to say, “God has made all of us free — free to say yes, free to say no, and free to make up our own minds about our spiritual destiny.  Religious freedom has theological import. It goes to the heart of who God is and who we are. So, the fight for religious liberty for all is to ensure against government doing what even God will not do: to violate consciences or to coerce faith.  Baptists became champions of religious liberty and church-state separation in large measure because we are a people of the Book.”

I encourage you to visit the website of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and take advantage of the information and resources which are available.  It is important for us to remember that this precious freedom is fragile and must be defended for all people.  I am grateful we continue to be advocates for God’s precious gift.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sharing Hope is Our Mission

We live in the world where it is hard to have hope!  Much of the world today has given up hope.  Many people live with a type of cynicism, discouragement, and hopelessness that robs them the joys of life.  Many have never really known hope.  For some all they have known is poverty, war, racism, and disease.  Where is their hope?  Others have lost or given up the hope they once knew because of frustration, failures, and their seeming inability to change their world.  They no longer believe things can change.

Even much of the church today struggles to live with the passion and vitality of the Christian Hope.  Years of conflict and decline on the part of many of our churches have robbed many of their passion and hope.  We find ourselves struggling so hard to encourage believers that we find no energy to share our hope with a hopeless world.  Churchnet is beginning the third year of a five-year emphasis called Share Hope.  The goal of the Share Hope five-year emphasis is to encourage, equip and assist churches as they mobilize their members to share the hope they have found in Christ. Our goal is help churches share hope through three specific strategies. 

The first strategy is Relational Evangelism.  Relational evangelism focuses on equipping and encouraging Christians to share their faith with friends and neighbors.  It is simply the process of building genuine friendships with people who do not know Christ and sharing how Christ has changed our lives.  The problem for many Christians is the longer they are members of our churches the fewer significant relationships they have with people who are not Christians.  They accused Jesus of being a friend of sinners.  What a wonderful thing it would be to say of a congregation today…these people are friends of sinners.

The second strategy is Congregational Ministry.  Congregational ministry is defined as serving and meeting the needs of individuals and families in their communities.  If you community is like the one where I live the needs probably seem overwhelming. The economic conditions of the past few years have left many individual and families struggling.  Our church’s benevolence ministry never seems to have the resources to respond to the needs.  There are people who need help with the basic life necessities of food, shelter, transportation, and medical care.  Sometimes the needs go well beyond these basics to emotional and relational problems.  I am reminded of the often quoted phrase, people will not care about our message unless they know we care about them.  Our challenge today is to involve our entire congregations in ministry that will touch lives.

The third strategy is Community Advocacy.  Community advocacy is speaking and acting on behalf of the poor and marginalized in their communities.  My experience of our Baptist tradition is that we are much better ministering to those in need than we are in working on the systemic problems in our communities.  We may respond to the hungry by feeding the poor, but we seldom get involved in working on the systems that keep people trapped in poverty.  Maybe we could accept the prophetic role which calls us to speak and act for justice in our communities. 

The Christian life is all about “hope.”  One of the definitions of “hope” is a person or thing in which expectations are centered.  Jesus Christ is our Hope!  Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:3: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…  If we show up to share the gospel, minister to hurting people, and speak for those who have no voice, God will use us to give hope, save lives and change our world.  We would love to partner with your church as you seek to share hope in your community.  Sharing hope is our mission!

This article was written for this week's Churchnet page in Word&Way.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fellowship, Blessing, and Challenge

This past weekend Churchnet gathered for our 10th Anniversary Celebration. Opening Day for the Cardinals and a series of strong storms may have reduced a crowd a little, but we had a wonderful and important gathering. As I reflected upon the meeting, I was reminded what this type of gathering accomplishes for our network. Like a family reunion it is a time when the extended family comes together for fellowship. It is always great to see Christian friends as church leaders gather from across the state. Like our families the Churchnet family does not get together frequently, and the gathering provides an important opportunity for fellowship. Fellowship reminds us that we are not alone. Fellowship provides encouragement. It does these things for churches and church leaders. This year we had some new faces at our Annual Gathering, and it was great to connect with some old friends. We also had the opportunity to connect with our institutional partners. Almost forty percent of our Annual Budget goes to help support our institutional partners, and the Annual Gathering provides an opportunity to get an update on their ministries. In a sense Churchnet is a family of churches. It is a family of church leaders. This fellowship is an important part of being a family.

I was also blessed by the Annual Gathering. The opportunity to come together with the Baptist family for worship is always a blessing. We were reminded during our worship that we are part of the larger Baptist family. The representatives from our Texas Baptist friends were a reminder of our partnership with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. George Bullard, General Secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship, and John Upton, President of the Baptist World Alliance, reminded us that we are a part of the global Baptist family. I was blessed by the outstanding music we had for our worship. The Missouri Baptist University Chorale and Ringers and the Worship Ensemble from Southwest Baptist Church all provide leadership for our worship. The volunteers who shared at our Annual Missions Banquet blessed by heart as they shared about their experiences in Guatemala. I am always involved in a lot of preparation for the Annual Gathering. In a sense most of my work related to the Annual Gathering is over once the event begins. I was personally blessed as we gather for worship.

Maybe most importantly, I was challenged. I have been attending Baptist conventions and meetings since I was a young person. I have been in vocational ministry for 40 years. It would be difficult for me to summarize how God has used these annual gatherings of the Baptist family in my life. Sometimes, I have been encouraged and uplifted. Sometimes, I found a new resource or tool for ministry. Many times, I have been challenged. I was challenged again this year. I was challenged by the messages shared by John Upton and Doyle Sager. I was challenged by some of the reports and stories shared by those attending the gathering. I was challenged by the workshop leaders. I was challenged in a new and fresh way by the Spirit of God. Our theme for this year’s anniversary gathering was Share Hope: The Journey Continues. If there is any group who should be committed to sharing hope, it is the people of God. Our Share Hope emphasis is all about helping churches become more effective in sharing the hope they have found in Christ through relational evangelism, congregational ministry and community advocacy. God is still in the business of bringing hope to the hopeless. It is always good to pause and allow God to renew our commitment to Kingdom business. He reminded all of us that we need to share hope! Thanks for being a part of our Annual Gathering.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How big is the Kingdom?

Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about the Kingdom of God. He talked about what the kingdom of God was like. He described how we could enter the kingdom of God. He spoke about those to whom the kingdom of God belonged. Many of his parables were kingdom parables. It is pretty clear from the New Testament that his disciples and followers found it difficult to understand his teaching about the kingdom of God. I am confident there is still great deal of confusion about the nature of the kingdom of God.

I believe most of us have a view of God’s kingdom that is much too small. It is so easy, especially in a culture which is so individualistic, for us to get wrapped up in our own little world. We believe we have the corner on God. Local churches can be so focused upon their own congregation’s goals and plans that they fail to see or become an active participant in the larger work of God’s kingdom. The Christian faith teaches us that we are a part of the family of God. We need each other, and we are responsible for and to each other. The problem is human relationships are challenging and difficult. Our fallen nature makes it so easy to focus upon ourselves and our needs, instead of reaching out to our brothers and sisters. Yet, we cannot become mature and responsible followers of Christ in isolation from the larger kingdom.

The early foundations for associations of churches, both locally and nationally, grew out of an awareness that local congregations needed each other. At their best, these associations or relationships enabled congregational collaboration and partnership. They allowed churches to support and encourage each other. They made it possible for congregations to work together to extend the kingdom in ways they could never have done alone. Obviously, associations and denominational organizations can also easily become focused upon themselves. They can begin to believe the kingdom revolves around them and their activity. Some of these organizations believe churches exist to serve the denomination. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Churchnet is a Baptist network serving churches. Churchnet is a ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. We are approaching our 10th Anniversary as we make plans for our Annual Gathering on April 13-14, 2012, at Fee Fee Baptist Church. Our mission is serving churches as they fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Our vision is to encourage and equip churches to expand the kingdom of God. For 10 years we have been trying to build a new type of denominational network based upon a new paradigm. In reality, I believe it is our effort to get back to the original paradigm—churches serving each other and the kingdom of God. The goal of all our initiatives is “to create a space” where genuine Kingdom collaboration can take place among congregations and with ministry partners. From the very beginning we have said it is not about us. It is about the churches we serve and the kingdom of God they serve. We certainly have a long way to go, but I am genuinely excited about what God is doing in and through our Churchnet ministry.

It is because we believe in the kingdom of God that we have chosen to be a part of the North American Baptist Fellowship representing more than 23 million Baptists and the larger global Baptist family through the Baptist World Alliance. This recognition is why we believe in collaboration and networking with other Christians. I hope you will join us for our Annual Gathering. Come explore the kingdom of God with us. Come help us create a space for kingdom collaboration.

This article was written for a recent issue of Churchnet's page in Word&Way.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enough is Enough

Usury is defined as the practice of charging excessive, unreasonably high, and often illegal interest rates on loans. Originally, when the charging of interest was still banned by Christian churches, usury simply meant the charging of interest at any rate. The book of Exodus says, “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest (22:25).” The writer of Proverbs says, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).”

A coalition of community and faith groups is currently supporting an initiative petition to be placed on the Missouri November ballot to cap the rate of predatory lending in our state at 36%. Only a few years ago Missouri usury laws capped these loans at an even lower rate; however, driven by the payday loan and related industries these laws have been dramatically relaxed. Now, payday lenders in Missouri are charging an average of 444 percent interest—and can charge as high as 1,950 percent. Some have suggested that this is legalized loan-sharking. These predatory loans carrying triple-digit interest rates create a long-term cycle of debt, exploiting a family’s budget crisis, and driving these families into deeper debt. Even more remarkable they thrive by oppressing the most vulnerable in our communities.

Incredibly, we have more payday lenders than Starbucks, McDonald’s & Walmart’s combined. They saturate our cities, and they can found in almost all of our small towns and many rural areas. These payday, car title, and other high cost lenders drain millions of dollars in predatory fees annually from our communities. Missouri loses $317 million annually in payday loan fees alone taken out of our state. That’s a lot of money that could be spent investing in our neighborhoods and families. Where does all this money go? Most of it goes to out-of-state predatory lenders. Some of it comes back to Missouri legislators who protect these predatory lenders’ ability to charge these high interest rates.

For more than 10 years Missouri’s legislature has failed to take action on numerous bills and countless appeals from faith and community leaders from across our state. I believe it is time for people of faith in Missouri to make our voices and values heard. It is time for us to say, “This is wrong—enough is enough.” It is wrong to take advantage of the working poor. No one in the middle or upper income brackets would stand for these ridiculous interest rates and fees. Many in the payday and related industries will say these loans are needed and we must be able to charge these rates to cover our risk, but studies indicate the repayment rate on these loans (even with current rates) is between 90 and 95 percent. The default rate is much lower than the default on credit card debt. These lenders charge these rates because they can.

Missouri has some of the weakest payday loan laws in the nation and some of the highest rates. I believe this is wrong, and it is contrary to my faith and the teachings of scripture. For me to fail to speak or to act on behalf of the working poor in our state is to betray my faith and my Savior. If you would like more information I encourage you to visit Missourians for Responsible Lending (www.moresponsiblelending.org). This is not a political issue—it is an issue of faith and justice. I hope you will join the effort as we seek to lead our state to greater justice and hope for all Missourians.

This article was written for this week's Churchnet page in Word&Way.

Monday, January 2, 2012

What does God Expect of Me?

Happy New Year! 2012 is here! Have you made you New Year’s Resolutions? Maybe a better question is have you broken them? For many people New Years Day is a time when we think about the coming year…what we expect or hope for. What does this passage (Matthew 25:31-46) about the sheep and the goats have to say to us? How can it help us to be better prepared to face a new year?

God has expectations for us. He has plans for us. He has expectations for all of his creation, and he will judge us on the basis of his expectations. The passage provides an incredible picture of the final judgment. The one who took the form of a servant will ultimately return in glory to judge. All the nations will be a part of this judgment. What will be the standard for this judgment? What does God expect of me? The good news is this final examination is an “open book examination.” The questions have been announced in advance. God is not trying to trick you. He has laid out his expectations.

His expectations are all about relationships. He will judge on the basis of our relationships. Ultimately, he will judge on the basis of our relationship with God through Christ. But, our relationship with the Son of Man is in separately tied to our relationships with each other, and more specifically, our relationships with “the least of these brothers (or sisters) of mine.” It is no problem to treat our loved ones and friends with love and compassion. We have been doing that for the past couple of weeks as we celebrated the birth of the Savior.

It is easy to be generous to our family; however, the real test of our relationship with God is how his presence impacts our relationships with “the least of these.” Jesus holds the destiny of all people in his hands, and he cares about the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, strangers, and prisoners. We all have our list of “the least of these.” They are the people who are outside of our circle of compassion and concern. Obviously, it could be some of the same ones Jesus mentioned, but it could be another race, nationality or ethic group. They might be individuals of another social economic group, someone with more or less education, people in another political party, or people from a another culture or lifestyle. We need to throw away all these lists that divide us and acknowledge we are all children of God. An unknown author penned these lines: There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it hardly becomes any of us, to talk about the rest of us!

Those ministering and serving did not realize they were doing so. They did not think about it. Their actions were not religious acts designed to make them look good to God or to gain his favor. They were just spontaneous acts of love and compassion. They were their normal response to another person in need. “Doing good” is not in the deeds themselves. Someone with selfish motives may choose to feed the hungry. It is the motive that reveals who we are.

Compassionate and serving love is the fruit of genuine religion. By this fruit one’s true relationship to God is revealed. God does not judge us on the basis of religious activity or justify us on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Remember the question which confronted Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel? What must I do to inherit eternal life? It is the same question. What does God expect of me? In response Jesus said, Love God with all you are, and love you neighbor as yourself! The follow-up question was Who is my neighbor? Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and he encouraged the inquirer to go and do likewise. Go and live like this man. Live a life characterized by compassionate love!

Those judged and sent away in the parable of the sheet and goats were not condemned for the “big sins.” Their guilt was in what they failed to do. We get to choose how we live, and our choices have eternal consequences. The story is told that just before the death of actor W.C. Fields, a friend visited Fields' hospital room and was surprised to find him thumbing through a Bible. Asked what he was doing with a Bible, Fields replied, "I'm looking for loopholes." There are a lot of people trying to find a way to live the Christian life without investing their lives in service to others, but there is no loophole.

God’s judgment will be surprising. God’s judgment always surprises us. He sees things so differently than we do. One of the characteristics of true saints is that they forget themselves in service to God and man. Ironically, those on the right and the left hand in the parable respond to the king’s statements with the same question. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a stranger, or a prisoner?

The loving in the parable were so humble that they could not imagine their service could have been a service to the king. They did not anticipate a reward for their actions. A genuine child of God loses himself or herself in loving service.

The unloving were so unobservant, their religion so routine, that they never thought of Jesus as being tied to the least of these. They did not anticipate he would ask from them acts of compassion. Their faith was only a ritual observance or a set of correct beliefs. They had separated Jesus from the routines of their daily lives and their everyday interactions with other people. Their insensitivity is revealed in their question, When did we see you? If you have to ask “who is in need,” then you do not understand the nature of our Savior. Their defense was their condemnation!

Christ goes about everyday among the poor and the imprisoned. He lives among all “those people” we try to avoid. The nature of this oneness of Christ with each person is beyond human expression. All of us have an understanding of the bond between a parent and a child (from one or both perspectives). The pain of one becomes the pain of the other. The bond between Christ and every person in our world is closer than any human tie. It is bound by creation and his eternal Spirit. The pain experienced by the least of these moves the very heart of our Savior.

The Christian life is not primarily a list of things to believe—some type of orthodox theology. It is about a relationship with God through Christ that forever changes us. This relationship changes all of our other relationships. It changes the way we see the world. It actually enables us to begin to see the least of these. Baptists are fond of saying we are “people of the Book.” We believe the Bible is the Word of God. In the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel as Jesus tells his disciples “good-bye,” he says: You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

I have come to believe what Jesus really meant was we were not merely to believe he was the way, but we were to adopt his way of living as our way of living. Jesus said to Thomas, I am the way…I have been showing you the way…My way of living is the way to God. He showed us all we need to know. The Message translation of the prophet Micah’s words (6:8) says it like this:

But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.

My resolution for this New Year is to see the world through my Savior’s eyes. To ask him to help me see and serve the least of these. My resolution is to live justly, with compassion and humility.

This post is a summary of a message I shared on New Year's Day.